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Evaluating Popular Non-fiction and News: Skimming and Close Reading

Scanning vs. Skimming

Scanning and skimming are speed-reading techniques/strategies that use rapid eye movement and keywords to move quickly through text for slightly different purposes:

Scanning is reading rapidly to find facts or information to answer specific questions.  Scanning often comes before skimming. For example, scanning can be used to determine if a resource (such as a news article) has the information you are looking for. Once the resource is scanned, it can then be skimmed for more detail (see below).

Skimming is reading rapidly to get a general overview of the material. Use skimming when previewing (reading before you read), reviewing (reading after you read), determining the main idea from a long section of text, or when trying to find source material for a research paper.

Here are some strategies that you can use specifically for skimming news articles:

  • Read the first and last paragraphs of an article first.
  • Notice the titles, headings, and subheadings.
  • Look at the illustrations, graphs, or other visuals on the page.
  • Read the captions of the visuals.
  • Read the first sentence of each paragraph.

Tips for Skimming News Content

  • Ask: Is it opinion or fact-based reporting? These different types of writing have different structures. 
    • News or fact-based reporting typically attempts to present impartial or objective facts about important events.
      • Finding the key facts about the events being covered: who, what, when, where, why, and how, is essential to understanding the work. Typically these will be presented early in the article. Skimming for names and dates can help to pinpoint them.  
      • Long form news writing can be structured around a fact-based thesis statement that makes an argument, often an argument about cause and effect. In this case, finding the thesis statement will be essential to understanding the work. 
    • Opinion, editorials, columns, and letters typically advance an argument or thesis. Identifying  
      • Identifying the argument being made is essential to quickly understanding the work. It will typically be stated at the beginning.
  • Read the headline. The headline should sum up the article, but be aware that often it is not written by the journalist who wrote the article, but by experts in driving traffic to news websites who may prioritize traffic over accuracy in their framing. Readers sharing content on social media after only having read a headline is one way for misinformation to spread online. 
  • Read the first paragraph. Many newspaper articles are structured to place important facts in the first paragraph (the "lead" or "lede.") A straight lede (aka a summary lead) will place important facts (who, what, when, where, how) in this paragraph. Articles structured with other types of ledes designed to entice readers will often place important facts or a summary of their thesis statement immediately after the lede.
  • Always remember that when you choose to skim, your understanding may suffer from any visibility bias in the piece. 

Close Reading

Scanning can help you rapidly find specific bits of information, and skimming will help you gain a general overview of the piece you're reading. But you may have had professors ask you to do a close reading of articles, book chapters, or other types of work.  What does that mean?

Close reading involves being active and critical as you read.  After you've read for comprehension, consider close reading as a way to delve deeper into the meaning, ask critical questions, and help you to develop a richer understanding of the text. 

Here are some strategies that you can use to guide you as you embark on close reading a text:

  1. Highlight key passages, phrases, and turning points. 
  2. Write marginal notes in the text that correspond to your highlights.  These notes can be questions, comments, or insights that you had as you read.
  3. Try some freewriting and attempt to answer the question(s) you asked about the reading in step 2. 
  4. Step back and reflect. Then continue to refine your process until you are satisfied that you can make a statement about the text's meaning.

(Adapted from the Purdue Online Writing Lab, Close Reading a Text and Avoiding Pitfalls.)